sunt…ista, Varro; nam nos in nostra urbe peregrinantis errantisque tamquam hospites tui libri quasi domum reduxerunt, ut possemus aliquando qui et ubi essemus agnoscere.(Cic. Acad. 1.3.9)
What you say is true, Varro; for we were wandering and straying about, like foreigners in our own city, and your books, as it were, led us back home, so that we could see at last who and where we were.
With its memorable image of the Antiquitates
guiding home a Roman populace estranged from Rome, Cicero's compliment to Varro epitomises the Roman tendency to intertwine historical knowledge and the urban landscape. In the profusion of scholarship on Roman topography and memory, this tendency has become something of a topos
in its own right. In her seminal monograph Writing Rome
, for example, Catharine Edwards proposes that, ‘topography, for Romans, perhaps played a greater role than chronology for making sense of the past…places became vehicles for a kind of non-sequential history’. Straying about like foreigners in their own city, however, Cicero's lost Romans remind us that the city's history was not immanent in its hills and valleys, monuments and marketplaces. On the contrary, like any other, Rome's mnemonic topography was a work in process, constituted in ‘the persistent return to history, the systematic unearthing of ruins, the conscientious recovery of traditions, and…the reactivation of an inherited past’.